Archive for April, 2011

Fourth ‘Fast and Furious’ sequel a wild ride

Thursday, April 28th, 2011
Paul Walker and Vin Diesel in "Fast Five" Brian (Paul Walker) and Dom (Vin Diesel) plan to make one last big score in the action-packed “Fast Five.”

Justin Lin’s “Fast Five” — his third directorial contribution to the “Fast and Furious ” franchise — is easy, breezy, bloodlessly violent comic-book fun.

In fact, if you listen to the characters talking to themselves while drag-racing squad cars down a Rio de Janeiro street, they virtually supply their own word balloons to tell us what they’re thinking.

At least I hope screenwriter Chris Morgan intended his dialogue to be cornball, campy and quotable. Otherwise, it would merely be a collection of cheesy, wince-inducing groaners.

“You’ve got to run before it’s too late!” the pretty Gisele says.

“Running ain’t freedom!” Dom barks, his face straighter than a pin.

Good thing there’s more doing than talking in “Fast Five,” a slick stunt-a-thon stuffed with so many action sequences, it would be tough to pinpoint the most thrilling.

Could it be the climactic demolition derby where two sports cars drag a giant bank vault through downtown Rio, destroying buildings and vehicles before inexplicably wiping out every single corrupt cop in the city? (Read more…)

Disney’s ‘Prom’ not all that memorable

Thursday, April 28th, 2011
Thomas McDonell and Aimee Teegarden in "Prom" Rebel Jesse (Thomas McDonell) enjoys a shake with overachiever Nova (Aimee Teegarden) in “Prom.”

From Joe Nussbaum, the director who gave us the clever cult film short “George Lucas in Love,” comes one of the least clever, culty motion pictures to come out of the Walt Disney Studios.

But give it credit. It has miles of cute.

As a student named Lloyd puts it, “Prom! That soul-crushing mistress!”

The succinctly titled “Prom” brings together a dizzying ensemble of 14 young actors (among them Hinsdale student Danielle Campbell) in what should be advertised as an ultimate parents’ fantasy high school movie.

At Brookside High School, the perfectly diversified student body has yet to become acquainted with sex, drugs, abuse or alcohol.

The scary, anti-authority rebel (you can tell he’s a rebel because he wears a leather jacket and drives a motorcycle) turns out to be a misunderstood sweetie.

The students apparently don’t need — at least they don’t get — any serious face-time or useful guidance from Dad and Mom. (One dad gives it a poor stab.)

And Brookside High has no class or social divides. Students live for the prom, or, as one student puts it, “All of us together in this one perfect moment!” (Read more…)

Lukewarm ‘Water’ trudges along at plodding pace

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011
Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon in "Water for Elephants" Jacob (Robert Pattinson) falls in love with a married circus performer (Reese Witherspoon) in “Water for Elephants,” based on the novel by Sara Gruen.

“Water for Elephants” could use an elephant hook to prod it along a little quicker, and some emotional fireworks to bring some burning desires to the main characters.

After all, this is supposed to be a timeless story of a tragic romantic triangle set against the backdrop of the Big Top during the Great Depression.

To work well, Francis Lawrence’s period drama needs the one thing it doesn’t get: the sense of unstoppable romantic destiny that Jacob shares with Marlena.

Here, they’re not destined to be together so much as they appear to bump into each other by circumstance, and, having few other options, fall for each other.

Based on the best-seller by former Grayslake resident Sara Gruen (which might explain Jacob’s lengthy voice-over narration guiding us along), “Water for Elephants” is told as a flashback by an elderly man named Jacob (Hal Holbrook), who appears to know something about the terrible Benzini Brothers circus tragedy of 1931. (Read more…)

Lives of wild felines exposed in ‘Cats’

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011
Sita the cheetah from "African Cats" Sita the cheetah watches over her cubs in Walt Disney’s amazing new nature documentary “African Cats.”

I sat in awe of what my eyes beheld.

There on the river bank stood a mighty male lion defending his pride from an aggressive crocodile attempting to interrupt their dinner.

With inches between their noses, the lion and crocodile play a deadly game of chicken. The lion cuts loose with bloodcurdling bellows. The reptile hisses.

The lion advances. The crocodile slowly backs off. Then, with one final snap! of its jaws in protest, the reptile retreats into the water.

The mighty lion stands down, and I started breathing again.

“African Cats” is filled with scenes like this one. Incredible, wonderful, frightening, tense and insightful scenes that drop us into the lives of the wild cats that roam the hostile and unforgiving land of Kenya.

This doc, co-directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill, assembles some of the most moving and educational animal kingdom footage since “March of the Penguins.”

It took his crew more than two and a half years of filming in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve to get what we see here, and their patience and persistence pay off handsome entertainment dividends for us. (Read more…)

Redford’s ‘Conspirator’ plods along

Saturday, April 16th, 2011
Robin Wright in "The Conspirator" Union soldiers escort Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) to trial where she faces charges of plotting to assassinate President Lincoln in Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator.”

Had Oliver Stone directed the Lincoln assassination drama “The Conspirator,” historical accuracy might have suffered in the service of creating political paranoia and some loopy visuals.

But “The Conspirator” was directed by Robert Redford as an earnest, plodding, hopelessly chatty chronicle of the unjust and immoral actions of the U.S. leadership in the aftermath of the president’s murder.

Civil war hero and now attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy, armed with a suitable American accent) is surprised when his law mentor (Tom Wilkinson) pushes him to take the case of Mary Surratt (a supremely pale Robin Wright), one of eight people arrested in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln.

It’s instantly apparent the Union military is willing to throw justice under the stagecoach to make someone — anyone with Southern leanings — an example, and so poor Aiken seemed doomed opposite the biased judge General Hunter (Colm Meaney), prosecuting General Holt (slithery villainous Danny Huston) and vengeful Secretary of War Stanton (Kevin Kline).

Redford doesn’t seem all that excited about telling this story, and it shows in the narrative’s measured pace, its bland sepia tone and Mark Isham’s score that does little for our emotional investment. (Read more…)

Cute ‘Rio’ undercut by cliches, stereotypes

Saturday, April 16th, 2011
Linda and Blu from "Rio" Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann) teaches Blu the bird (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) to brush his beak in the 3-D animated comedy “Rio.”

“Rio” presents a blandly generic story pumped full of life by bright and crisp animation — despite being dimmed by 3-D glasses — plus a bouncy musical score equipped with a few serviceable but forgettable original songs.

The script runs the gamut from sassy, humorous dialogue to a disappointing dependence on kid movie clichés. (Do we really need more tired advice like “Be yourself” or more sight gags of males hurting themselves where it really hurts?)

At least “Rio” boasts strong voice talents, so even the silliest of nonsensical sentences — such as Raphael the toucan’s advice, “Flying isn’t what you think up here, but what you feel in here!” — sound almost like wisdom.

At the start of “Rio,” poachers in Brazil birdnap a blue baby macaw that hasn’t even learned to fly, then whisk him off to market in the United States. His cage falls out of a truck while traveling through snowy Minnesota.

That’s where a little girl named Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann) discovers him, names him Blu and takes him home to be her best friend for many years.

Inexplicably, a comically overenthusiastic Brazilian bird specialist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) somehow locates the now adult Linda and tells her she must bring Blu back to the rain forest. (Read more…)

‘Scream 4’ amps up the gore

Saturday, April 16th, 2011
Neve Campbell in "Scream 4" Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) struggles to keep an edge on her relationship with a serial killer in “Scream 4.”

I realize that “Scream 4” is supposed to be a self-aware post-modernistic comic horror film, because two soon-to-be skewered blondes tell us this in the film’s fatal opening segment.

But must all the characters in “Scream 4” be as clueless as the camping teens in “Friday the 13th,” when they’re supposed to be aware of the very horror film clichés that they’re now propagating?

Take Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott, who has already survived longer than most of her peers from three previous “Scream” movies. She should be proud of her track record and cash in her chips.

Sidney is in a house when she sees a reflection of a dark silhouette behind her.

Does she run? Call the cops? Arm herself?

Nope.

She investigates and, finding nobody, simply shrugs and goes about her business, despite the fact that she just saw someone in her house while a sadistic serial killer wearing a ghostface mask is butchering the good people of Woodsboro.

The “Scream” movies have finally exhausted writer/producer Kevin Williamson’s original premise to parody mad slasher movie clichés while simultaneously entertaining us with those very same elements.

Creative rigor mortis has set in. (Read more…)

Art house meets grindhouse in ‘Hanna’

Friday, April 8th, 2011
Saoirse Ronan in "Hanna" Saoirse Ronan stars as “Hanna,” a lethal teenager on a mission from dad.

If you see Joe Wright’s amazing action movie “Hanna,” pay close attention to a scene where Hanna’s father, Erik (played by Eric Bana), arrives at a bus station.

In one single, glorious, meticulously crafted shot, the camera follows Erik all over the station, through the crowds, down a long staircase and into an open area, where he confronts several would-be assassins in a breathtaking, masterfully choreographed fight for survival.

This accomplished sequence and others like it are why film critics will do cartwheels over “Hanna,” and why fans of action films will be impressed with this movie, one that poses the question, “What if Jason Bourne had a kid sister?”

Wright has put together impressive tracking shots before, such as the lengthy beach landing sequence from his excellent period drama “Atonement,” starring a young Saoirse Ronan.

Now, a more grown-up Ronan stars in “Hanna,” a slick and slightly futuristic thriller that straddles the line between an art house drama and a popcorn pleaser feature.

“Hanna” opens with a teenage Hanna hunting and killing a moose with a bow, arrow and a gun in some remote, snowy realm of the world, suggesting she has been well-trained in survival tactics.

Her father Erik, clearly some kind of uber-soldier or secret agent in a prior life, coaches her in the art of staying alive. (Read more…)

Dated ‘Arthur’ turns out to be one dud-ly remake

Friday, April 8th, 2011
Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne in "Insidious" Arthur Bach (Russell Brand) consoles his ailing nanny (Helen Mirren) in the embarrassingly dated, lackluster romantic comedy “Arthur.”

Of all the movies from the early 1980s, Steve Gordon’s rom-com “Arthur” would seem the least likely to justify a remake in 2011.

Yet, here it is, a dated dud of a movie eking by on the limited ingratiating charms of Russell Brand, stuck with the unenviable responsibility of rendering an irresponsibly insensitive character lovable.

In 1981, Dudley Moore played Arthur, an affectionately cheery, perpetually drunk New York zillionaire who does nothing but get into trouble, feed his adolescent appetites and throw money around as if it meant nothing to him, because it indeed meant nothing to him.

This Oscar-winning film (for John Gielgud and Christopher Cross’ song “Arthur’s Theme”) came out at the start of Reagan-era America, back when alcoholism could still be funny and squandering a fortune on nothing could be fantasy fulfillment.

Jason Winer’s remake, adapted by Peter Baynham, doesn’t change much of the basic story, but does err in replacing Arthur’s male valet (a perfectly cast Gielgud) with a female nanny, Hobson (Helen Mirren, pushing her Oscar-winning talents to the max to keep from being engulfed by soggy material).

Brand’s Arthur lives the life of a childish Hugh Hefner, except he doesn’t publish anything or operate businesses. His mother Vivienne (Geraldine James) has had it with Arthur’s embarrassing public behavior and scandals, because the stockholders of her megacompany worry what will happen should Arthur take over one day. (Read more…)

‘Insidious’ scares up old-fashioned horror tale

Friday, April 8th, 2011
Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne in "Insidious" Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson, left) and his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) must save their son from evil spirits in “Insidious.”

“Insidious” is so confident it will scare the Pop Tarts out of us that it begins with a cheesy opening scene suggesting it’s going to be just another stupid, PG-13-rated horror movie.

While a boy quietly sleeps in his bedroom, Joseph Bishara’s over-the-top score hits every nerve-jangling, dissonant trill of the strings.

Then the camera slowly pans to the window.

There! In the window! Some old woman with yechy hair and a candle stands looking into the bedroom!

So what’s scary about that?

Nothing, except the overblown music.

With our expectations now lower than for a “Red Riding Hood” sequel, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell — the sadistically inventive team behind all of the popular “Saw” movies — whisk us into a delightfully tongue-in-cheek, old-fashioned horror opus that’s part “Exorcist,” part “Haunting,” and all together creepy.

“Insidious” doesn’t break any new ground in horror.

It doesn’t want to.

Wan and Whannell recycle all the best conventions of nightmare films: the scary attic, the threatening darkness, the tension-filled seance, doors that won’t stay closed, comatose kids walking around in the middle of the night. And a few shocks. (Read more…)